Revitalizing Old Buildings Sets Growing Trend for Hotel Industry

  • Jul 8, 2019

This column is featured in Hospitality Net.  

By Clayton Daspit, AIA, Principal of Architecture at The Beck Group

Across the great cities of our country, the trend of rehabilitating old buildings into luxury hotels remains one of the brightest spots in the hospitality industry, offering a unique and rewarding experience for travelers seeking modern-day accommodations linked to a bygone era.

More hoteliers are repurposing old and abandoned buildings that embody in stone and steel a historic narrative of their locale, as well as a remarkable level of detail and intrigue that conventional hotels cannot replicate. No longer used for their intended purpose, urban factories, warehouses, hospitals, office buildings, and schools have morphed into plush hotels offering the latest amenities.

These adaptive reuse projects can be more economical than building from the ground up. Reusing old buildings can avoid the high costs associated with new construction and land purchases, especially in pricey urban areas. The availability of federal and state tax credits for historic buildings also contributes to significant growth in hotel redevelopment projects across the country.

Besides the benefits of preserving a piece of a city’s culture and history, the revitalization of existing buildings takes on greater importance amid mounting concerns over the energy use in producing new construction materials, and the effects of construction waste on the environment. A staggering amount of construction debris is added each year to our nation’s expanding landfills. Repurposing old but still useful buildings takes advantage of their “embodied energy” and dramatically lessens the environmental impact of these construction projects.

In recent years, adaptive reuse hotels are enticing a growing legion of youthful urban residents and out-of-towners attracted to the elegant charm and local character these older buildings possess. It also allows hotel properties to effectively differentiate themselves in an increasingly competitive environment for tourism dollars.

Atlanta’s redevelopment efforts deliver historic hotels with modern conveniences

Dubbed as the Gateway to the New South, Atlanta joins other major U. S. cities in bringing aged or distressed buildings back to life while keeping their historical heritage intact. Currently, the city’s downtown is home to several existing and planned adaptive-use hotel projects.

One example is the conversion of the circa-1920s Glenn office building into one of the first boutique historic hotels in downtown Atlanta. The building is a designated historic site and has operated as a hotel for more than a decade.

The long-abandoned Medical Arts Building is planned to start a new life as a swanky downtown hotel. The 1920s-era, 12-story office building stood vacant for over two decades until a developer proposed to convert the structure into a boutique hotel with a restaurant and retail shops.

Built in the 1920s, the landmark Clermont Motor Hotel had fallen into decline in its later years. The in-town hotel closed for a decade due to code violations, but the five-story building was saved by developers who renovated it into a hip boutique hotel. With a popular rooftop bar – replete with a radio antenna tower overlooking sweeping vistas -and a French restaurant, this historic hotel’s design theme is “eclectically lavish.”

In the heart of Atlanta’s downtown, the Hotel Indigo is among the city’s burgeoning group of boutique hotels. The hotel, crafted within the shell of a 60’s-era modern office building designed by prominent local architect John Portman, has more than 200 guestrooms and a dramatic serpentine glass-steel staircase.

And one of Atlanta’s most widely known historic office buildings will soon be unveiled as downtown’s newest upscale hotel, called the Candler Hotel Atlanta, part of the Hilton Curio portfolio of luxury boutique hotel properties.

Candler Hotel—an architectural jewel shines again in Atlanta’s shimmering skyline

The Candler Building is in the heart of downtown within walking distance of the city’s major attractions and is of historical importance to the city.

The landmark building, built in 1906, is emblematic of the city’s adaptive reuse hotel projects, creating a curated luxury hotel while preserving its architectural and historical significance.

The 17-story building was one of the city’s architectural prized jewels long before the hotel conversion started in 2016. The iconic Peachtree Street building, which was developed and owned by Coca-Cola founder and philanthropist Asa Candler, was designed to convey its status as one of the most modern office buildings at the beginning of the 20th century. No expense was spared to create a resplendent monument to business, commerce, and banking in the booming city.

Upon its completion, the Candler building displayed a myriad of visually stunning and ornate architectural embellishment. Every surface of the building, inside and out, boasted the finest materials and exquisite carvings of famous figures, mythological beasts, and events from history. This craftsmanship was guided by the talents of architects George Murphy and George Stewart and the sculptor F.B. Miles. Asa Candler enlisted them to execute his vision of creating a grand building that would be instrumental in Atlanta’s transformation into a modern American city.

An early form of the design-build method, contractors were required to provide designs and a bid for the project, based on a general diagram and program developed by the architects. The winning bidder, the American Bridge Company of New York, recognized for its elaborate details on bridges and other structures, won the commission. Utilizing a modern steel frame combined with a fireproof clay-tile flat arch floor system, it was one of the most technologically advanced buildings and the largest steel structure in the Southeast.

The Candler Hotel conversion is designed and built to preserve and celebrate both the building’s impressive interiors and its ornately carved marble and terra cotta exterior. At a high point along Atlanta’s famous Peachtree Street, the hotel offers sweeping views of the city from its 200-foot tall stature.

The hotel’s interior design, authored by the studio of San Francisco designer Nicole Hollis, conveys a refined, eclectic attitude inspired by the building’s fascinating history and crafted period details. The interior design elements harmonize with and enhance the building’s original sculpted white marble grand staircase, Tiffany rose windows and ornate mosaic tile floors. The hotel features comfortable lounge spaces, ample meeting rooms, and a grand ballroom, each with a distinct mood and character designed to take guests through a visual and tactile narrative experience.

The hotel’s 265 guestrooms and suites create a unique experience, with individual room layouts responding to the building’s triangular plan and opportunities for spectacular framed views from original windows. A new restaurant, which will be operated by James Beard Award-winning chef Hugh Acheson, will be located in the original banking hall that once was the home of the Central Bank & Trust. The hall features massive grey-veined marble columns with Ionic capitals, high ceilings, and expansive street-view windows. The restaurant will be named “By George” as a respectful nod to the original architects.

Overcoming Challenges to the Candler Building’s Transformation

Converting a century-old office building into a brand-new luxury hotel required the design-build team to overcome many challenges that typically surface during adaptive reuse projects. The peculiarities of century-old construction can present surprises to the most experienced design and construction teams. Understanding the bones of the building is critical for project success.

At the start of the project, a detailed analysis of the building’s structural systems and architectural features was necessary because of scarce and incomplete original drawings. To accomplish this task, the team made multiple inspections, took as-built measurements, and made a high-resolution laser scan of the 100-year-old-plus building. These steps provided a Building Information Model that captured an accurate 3D representation of the building.

Even with careful inspection and a 3D model of the building, the team encountered unexpected construction issues like a long-ago collapsed area of floor that has been infilled with plywood, columns that shifted position several inches from floor to floor, and a strong but outdated “flat-arch” structural system required careful engineering to make any modifications.

The building’s antiquated elevator machinery also had to be replaced with newer equipment. But there was concern that removing the three-ton motors from their mounts and placing them on the floor would cause a collapse. The team overcame that challenge through careful phasing of the removal, and installed much smaller and more efficient modern machinery to operate the elevators.

Another difficulty was adding a new staircase, as the original 1906 building only had a single exit stair. The new staircase was needed to comply with building safety codes that require two exits for high-rise buildings, in case one of the staircases is blocked in an emergency. Adding a new staircase required the removal of a structural bay at each level from top to bottom and threading steel stair components into the existing structure. Creating the stair was a delicate operation that required careful coordination to maintain the structural integrity of the building.

Meeting the requirements of the building’s historical designation also posed challenges. For instance, the hotel required a cover over its drop-off area at the entrance to prevent arriving guests from being soaked during rainy weather. A cover did not exist, but one was thoughtfully added to the historic façade.

The state historic preservation office’s exacting standards forbid changes that damage, compete with or detract from a historically-designated building’s character. The solution was designing a transparent glass canopy that keeps guests dry as they arrive while allowing them to see through to appreciate the ornate details, carved figures and bronze chandelier spanning the building’s arched entryway. The canopy does not touch or harm the original marble skin of the building and is designed to be removable in the future.

As more people choose to seek out unique hotels with a memorable past, hoteliers find that leveraging older buildings stories enhances the guest experience and provides a competitive advantage with an ever more discerning clientele who seek unique and meaningful experiences. Transforming these aged and architecturally-inspiring structures into stylish modern-day hotels allows rapidly rejuvenating urban centers like Atlanta to preserve their indigenous historic spaces, and hold onto to distinctive cultural identities while satisfying the expectations and desires of modern urban travelers.